As Kenyans go to the polls Thursday, there will be more at stake than just choosing their next leader. They may be setting new standards for democracy on the continent.
Just five years after voting out a strong-armed president who had reigned for 24 years, Kenyans now face a tight race between two equally strong parties, a rarity in Africa where one-party states are the norm.
With one poll showing populist opposition leader Raila Odinga just three points ahead of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, however, Kenyan observers warn that the losing party is almost certain to contest the results.
"This is a test of multiparty democracy," says Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of the Center for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi. No vote in Kenya is completely free of violence, but this election "is between two good guys saying, 'I can lead,' " he says. "The battle will be over where my interests as a Kenyan will be better represented."
For most Kenyan voters, elections are less about issues and policies and more about personalities and ethnic communities. And in Kibaki and Odinga, both former allies in the fight to topple Kenyan strongman President Daniel Arap Moi, Kenyans have two very different men to choose from.
The technocrat vs. the populist
President Kibaki served as a minister in Mr. Moi's government before setting up his own separate opposition party. In power, Kibaki has projected himself as pro-business, rolling out a series of reforms that revived industries both in urban areas and in rural farming communities. But critics also point out that Kibaki failed to reign in corruption, and to rewrite the Moi-era constitution that gives broad powers to the president.
While Kibaki is seen as a cool technocrat who delegates power to his ministers, his rival Odinga is seen as a hands-on charismatic populist who leads from the front, and revs up crowds with speeches targeted at the nation's younger, poorer majority.
A mechanical engineer by training, a leftist by temperament (he named his son Fidel Castro), and a parliamentarian representing Kenya's largest slum, Odinga has run his campaign promising to create jobs and spread the benefits of Kenya's economic boom to the vast majority who still haven't felt its effects.
The two candidates belong to ethnic communities that have long been rivals. Kibaki is an ethnic Kikuyu from Central Province, Kikuyus being Kenya's business and landowning class. Odinga is a Luo from Nyanza province, and Luos are famed as warriors. Their success or failure depends on how they can spread their appeal to the other 40-some ethnic groups.
Polls continue to show Raila Odinga, a former minister in Kibaki's government, slightly ahead of President Kibaki. The closest of these polls, conducted by the Kenyan polling firm Consumer Insight, shows Odinga with 43 percent of respondents, Kibaki with 42 percent.
At a final press conference before the election, Odinga predicted victory, but pointed to allegations of ballot-stuffing by pro-Kibaki government officials. "It now seems that this passionately democratic exercise is a complete and twisted sham," said Odinga. "Such blatant rigging is playing with fire. Kenyans will not stand for this."
Ronald Ngeny, a one-time parliamentary candidate for Odinga's party, took this warning a step farther. "If the government tries to rig, it will be revolution. It will be a long struggle."
Tempers erupted into violence on Tuesday, after supporters of Mr. Odinga and Mr. Kibaki clashed in Nairobi's downtown. The government has deployed 30,000 officers to protect polling stations and keep the peace.
That tempers should be set so high is striking in a country that has enjoyed an economic boom – and an average 5 percent growth rate – since Kibaki came to power in 2002. Kibaki's free-market policies have attracted foreign investment and foreign tourists. Most Kenyans applaud his decision to provide primary school education free of charge, and to expand that program to secondary education as well.
Yet with more than 40 percent of Kenyans unemployed, and with food prices rising, many Kenyans seem ready for a change.
"People will vote for [Odinga], because the prices keep going up, but their wages are the same," says Isaac Barongo, a security guard in Nairobi.
Support in the slums
In Kibera, which is widely considered the largest slum in Africa, campaign trucks pump out African dance music as supporters wearing orange Odinga campaign shirts dance, blow whistles, and slow down traffic.
Kibera is the heart of Odinga's support, since this is where he has served as the district's parliamentarian, and a vocal opponent of the pro-business party of Kibaki. Yet Kibera is a disaster area. Its few paved roads are full of potholes. Its schools – though free – are desperately short of teachers.
Feruz Khamis is a leader of the Nubian ethnic community here, which has been pressuring the government to provide land titles to Nubians who have lived in this area for more than a hundred years. "To Nubians, Raila Odinga's dramatic entry into politics has been a source of hope," he says.
Compared with Odinga's flashy style, President Kibaki is an African Al Gore – a technocrat with a 10-point plan, and a long list of accomplishments. Kibaki campaign workers admit privately that the president awakened late to the need for vigorous campaigning, but they insist that despite the polls, the voters are on their side.
"Kibaki has achieved so much, but his laid back style hurts him," says Catherine Ngahu, a marketing researcher working for the Kibaki campaign. "When you're talking about poverty, using the World Bank standard of $1 a day, Kibaki has reduced the poverty level from 57 percent of the population to 46 percent. That may look little, but it was so bad before."
For his five years in office, Kibaki has preferred to delegate authority to his cabinet ministers, setting targets for them to achieve, and forcing them to resign if they failed. The method produced results. By investing in meat processing plants, Kenya has revived its meat industry, which collapsed under President Moi. Today, Kenya exports meat products throughout Eastern Africa.
Yet Kenyan voters, embracing the spirit of multiparty democracy, and the power to toss out incumbents, may simply want a new face.
"There are only two African countries – Kenya and Ghana – where the ruling party is not guaranteed to win elections," says Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "The way that Kenya conducts these elections can give a lot of hope to Africa, that you can become progressively better at democracy over time."
Like Mr. Kiai, Abdullah Ahmed Nasir believes that Kenyans have awakened to their democratic rights, and won't allow the polls to be rigged on a massive scale, as they were earlier this year in Nigeria.
"If [Odinga] wins, that can show that the apparatus of state can lose," says Abdullah Ahmed Nasir, former chair of the Law Society of Kenya, "and in terms of a defining moment for Kenyan democracy, that is significant."